“We’re in a cemetery so I’m going to be sharing some sad stories today.”
I give this disclaimer early on in the cemetery tours I lead–usually right before I talk about four sisters, ages 2 to 8, who died within 10 days of each other in January 1863. Their names, ages, and dates of death are engraved into the side of the family’s monument–their passing on display for all to witness over 150 years later.
I make my statement about the sad stories in part to prepare my audience–to let them know we’ll be dealing with death head on. I also say it to remind myself how to approach the subject. Having spent eight years studying mortality as a demography student and then a postdoc, I have a tendency to focus on death as a process that shapes populations (and fills cemeteries) rather than as one of the primary sources of human grief.
On graves, demographic information is standard: name, date of birth, date of death, and perhaps a relationship (husband, wife, father, mother, sister, brother, etc.). Some stones go beyond these basics to share more about the deceased: who they were or in some cases who they could have been.
For example, at the Louvre this summer, in the Ancient Greek section, I came across a funerary stele (i.e., grave marker) for a young unmarried man. It depicted a large decorative vase symbolic of the type of vessel that would have been used to fill a nuptial bath in a marriage ceremony he would never have. The piece dated to 330BC, and seeing it nearly 2,350 years later, I could still feel the loss of that potential–the grief the young man’s family felt at what could have been set into stone.